The right word - a Remembrance Sunday meditation

John 1:1-4 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

On Remembrance Day it is always important to find the right word to say, the one that does not offer false hope that, secondly, is not sentimental (i.e. it keeps its focus on the object of our grief and does not merely seek to address our own desires and needs) and, thirdly, the one that helps us undergo some kind of transformation. I have to say that this year I did not feel I had anything close to the right word to say. What that admission means is, I hope, a way by which this address might gesture towards the right word.

    I can most easily get to where I want to go today via some words about a true story researched and told by Norman Maclean in his book “Young Men and Fire” about the death of thirteen Forest Service Smoke-jumpers in Mann Gulch, Montana, on 5 August 1949. This event was relatively well-known in the US and whenever referred to it was nearly always described as an unnecessary catastrophe or disaster. Maclean was not prepared to let it remain that way as he tells us early on in the book: 

Although young men died like squirrels in Mann Gulch, the Mann Gulch fire could not end there, smoke drifting away and leaving terror without consolation of explanation, and controversy without lasting settlement. Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died but still “alertly erect in fear and wonder,” those who loved them forever questioning  “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one. This [the Mann Gulch fire] is a catastrophe we hope will not end where it began; it might go on and become a story. It will not have to be made up - that is all important to us - but we do have to know in what odd places to look for missing parts of a story about a wildfire and of course have to know a story and a wildfire when we see one. So this story is a test of its own belief - that in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs, if only we have some curiosity, training, and compassion and take care not to lie or to be sentimental (Maclean p. 37).

So for Maclean a true-story can only be told by someone who is curious, trained (i.e. with the necessary literary skills, and as we shall see with a knowledge of history and appropriate scientific knowledge), who is compassionate, who refuses to lie or become sentimental and who has the wisdom and creativity to bring them all together to show, and this is the story’s test, that “in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs”

But, as this first extract from Maclean’s book shows, in the attempt to tell any true story - especially one like the Mann Gulch fire and by implication today, the almost countless stories of those who lost their lives in war - some parts are always missing. Sometimes these missing parts are recovered by careful historical and scientific research and Maclean is tirelessly diligent in painstakingly piecing together the various surviving historical records and in learning the complex science of fire, how it spreads and how fast it can move under certain conditions. This I can assure you was no mean achievement. Of course, not every historical and scientific fact was recoverable by Maclean but enough was to close some significant gaps in the story he felt called to tell. But not all of the ‘missing parts’ of such stories are of this kind and here we touch upon the duties of story-teller who has the responsibility to “go further into the minds of his characters than is possible (or proper) for a historian”  (p. 219-220 Edwards). Maclean tells us that:

If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian, he must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into the smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them” (Maclean p. 102).

The person who desires to tell a true-story, according to this way of looking at things, is not simply one who is under the discipline of truth that the facts of history (as far as they can be recovered and ascertained) and the facts of nature (as far as our contemporary sciences know them) impose upon them, but someone who is also under the discipline of telling the truth of the characters in the story. This can only be done, Maclean suggests, by accompanying them right up until the point of their death even though, at times, he must speak of things they no longer knew and, perhaps, never could have known. James C. Edwards ponders this fact in his book The Plain Sense of Things and suggests that: 

[T]he notion of truth, certainly indispensable to a storyteller like Maclean, doesn’t require to be spelled out in terms that would satisfy Descartes or Bernard Williams. It doesn’t require an “absolute conception of reality.” There is no doubt that a physicist or a painter feels herself under the discipline of truth: whatever she is doing she must get it right, must do it right. She is not, in the first instance, in the business of satisfying herself, and she can’t change the rules in order to make her attempts at whatever she is doing more successful. She must answer to something “over there” (p. 224 Edwards).

I offer these thoughts because our two minutes of remembering inevitably will have been coloured by the many stories, poems, plays, films and pictures about war that we have been told or shown during our lives. Consequently, it should be a matter of concern to us whether the creators of these works were not only under the discipline Edwards points to but also whether they succeeded in any way in telling the truth.

But, although it seems relatively clear, if always difficult, about how we might measure the truth or otherwise of certain historical and technical facts it is less clear how we measure the truth of the stories which our story-tellers tell about those who can no longer speak for themselves. How can we be sure what they have written is true?

Well, here we encounter a key dilemma of our skeptical age. Once upon a time the measure we used - or at least invoked - was God. All our stories were, ultimately and in principle, measured against the immutable godhead; the truth will out, if not in this world, then at the final judgement (measuring) when all our story-telling (true and untrue) would be shown for what it was.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God - and, naturally, since the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it in the end there will also be God’s measure - the Word. The Word was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. It seems inconceivable to us that such a making would not involve a measuring of some sort and one of the tasks of religion and philosophy was to make available to people a tool which people felt confident used the same units of divine measurement as did God. Religion and philosophy made this measuring tool available by the creation of a series of complex moral and ethical canons - the primary one for our culture being, of course, the Bible. The word canon meaning, as you will be aware, “measuring line, rule”.

But we live in an age where the reality of God/the gods, of a platonic real, the Word, or of a final day of judgement are, for increasing numbers of us, little more than metaphors and for the most part they are no longer, in any literal sense, felt to be true at all. Even if we have a strong desire, or even inclination, to believe in the reality of this transcendent measure our culture no longer puts it before us as required as necessity requires - we know that there are other equally plausible, if not more plausible alternatives available to us. The single trustworthy measuring tool seems just to have disappeared from our world.

But has it? From where I am standing I don’t think it has. I can gesture towards what I mean only by reference to the passage from the Gospel of John we have already heard and I begin by saying I still want strongly to affirm that in the beginning was the Word and that the Word remains and will always for us remain a valid measurement of truth. But what I want to challenge head on and with all the strength I possess is the idea that there is only THE single Word.

All we have ever had to measure the truth of a human life and death are the words of our stories - whether they are passed to us in texts now deemed sacred or in novels, poems, plays, musicals, operas or films - and we still have these stories, these words. But in our age we know that we are caught between, on the one hand, our acknowledgement that it is required as a necessity requires for us only to speak those words we really feel to be true and, on the other, the radical freedom (and always present need) to try again, to listen better, to see better, to face the facts of history and nature more directly that we have done so far. As James C. Edwards eloquently puts it: 

However good and true a poem may be, there is always call for more such poems. . . . There is, after all, the right word to speak, the one properly required for this sentence (if only I can hear it), but it is the world properly required only for this sentence, not for the next or the next. It is the right word, the only right word; but it is not the Word of the Lord, nor of any of the Philosophical Fathers (p. 234 Edwards).

And so, today, I will conclude by saying that for us, today, there can be for us no final true form of words, no novel, no poem, no prayer, no film, no sermon that will ever be a sufficient, finally true measure of the countless lives lost in human conflicts throughout history. All we can genuinely hope for is that on occasions we find the true and right and true word for this moment, a true word which, without distorting the facts, helps us to discover  that “in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs”.

As long as we always remember to answer to something “over there” and we do not fall prey to the temptation of merely satisfying ourselves with shallow, sentimental words or merely change the rules that form the disciplined call to truth-telling in order to make our attempts at creating meaning more successful then, even when what is “over there” is as horrific as human warfare and conflict, then there is genuine reason to hope that the deaths of all those who have fallen in war will inspire us to create a human story that, forever, stills our need to kill and which can gently and unsentimentally shepherd us into an ever growing culture of peace. 

This address - certainly its central insight - draws almost wholly on the inspiring book by James C. Edwards The Plain Sense of Things. Should readers find something of help in this address the thanks really need to go to James Edwards. Whatever you think of this address I'd recommend his book unequivocally.